a good many years
, British travellers have been fascinated
by, 'the Dordogne
an area of France that conjures up an image of a return to rural life
at a slow pace; it has even been said that the Dordogne, for the
English, is imagined not really as an area of modern France - which it
is - but more as an imaginary reproduction of a bygone rural England -
which of course it is not - rather like a warmer and sunnier version of
the old Cotswolds, where the houses are built of honey-coloured stone,
the meadows are green and rich, the locals all friendly and
obliging country folk, and bemused French visitors can actually watch
people playing cricket on the green - which indeed they can! Like
Tuscany, the word Dordogne has become laden with bucolic symbolism and
imagery to such an extent that it is useful to dig well below the
surface and clarify what, exactly, the word "Dordogne" really
means, and what this area really is.
In fact, the word "Dordogne
" has two
different meanings. In the oldest sense of the word, it is a long
river, a tributary of the Gironde.
The second meaning of the
word is a French department (county), the "Département de la
surrounding a long stretch of the lower Dordogne between hills and
Virtually the whole area is
attractive hill country, full of old villages, castles, small country
towns and plenty of scope for relaxing and enjoyable holidays. While
the department of the Dordogne itself is increasingly geared to
tourism, much of
the area, particularly further into the hills, is very much
"off the beaten track", and just waiting to be discovered.
The department of the Dordogne
heart of the "Dordogne" area is, naturally, the department of the
Dordogne, centered on its capital Perigueux
the French tend to refer to this area not as "la Dordogne" but as "le
Périgord", and in France the area is most famous for its
delights, notably paté de foie gras, walnuts and truffles.
tourists, the epicentre of this Dordogne is an area known as
", situated in the south east of the department.
Centered on the town of Sarlat and the river Dordogne, this
is the classic Dordogne, with its limestone cliffs, castles (such as
Beynac or Castelnaud) and picturesque villages such as Domme and
Laroque Gageac, and also
its world-famous caves with their stalagmites and stalactites, and in
several cases prehistoric paintings. The French National Museum
of prehistory is at Les Eyzies, while the grotto at Lascaux
the world's most famous prehistoric cave paintings. On account of the
damage being caused by tourists, the real Lascaux cave, a UNESCO world
heritage site, was closed to visitors back in 1963, but an
exact replica has been carved out underground close to the original
location, and the visitor experience is totally authentic. There are
other prehistoric caves that can be visited at Font de Gaume and Cap
Blanc, and even a prehistoric theme park, Prehistoparc. Perigord Noir
is not a mountain region; it is hill country, mostly at an altitude of
between 200 and 350, metres.
West of Perigord Noir lies Périgord Pourpre
the area round Bergerac
this is a low lying area, the limits of the coastal plain, a region
most famous for its wines and vineyards. As for the north of the
department, this is known as Périgord
, Green Perigord, a greener and more undulating region
of small villages and farms, streams and rivers.
essentially Périgord Pourpre and Périgord Vert
that make up the
"Dordogneshire" that has attracted such a lot of British expats. Small
towns such as Belves, Mussidan and Eymet have an
olde-worlde charm to
them that is in marked contrast to the hustle and bustle of urban life
in England or for that matter in big towns and cities anywhere. Yet the
small towns of the Dordogne are in this respect much like many other
small towns in rural France; in actual fact, the Dordogne is just one
among several attractive rural departments in France. It just happens
to have been singled
out for special attention by the British.
As far as tourism
is concerned, the department of the Dordogne has four very popular
itself; the city has a beautiful historic centre, around its ancient
Cathédrale Saint Front, one of the oldest in France (though
rebuilt in the 19th century)
- The caves and prehistory area of the Vezère
valley between Montignac,
Lascaux and Les
- The "mediaeval" city of Sarlat
- and the Dordogne
valley itself, between Le Buillon and Aillac, an area
including several of the finest of the Dordogne castles.
Old houses built under the overhang of a cliff, near les Eyzies. Men
have lived in this area for around 400,000 years
These areas can be very busy in the summer holiday season.
For visitors who prefer to avoid the crowds,the
Dordogne has several very attractive small towns that are worth
visiting, but attract less tourists. These include Brantôme
and Nontron, in the north of the department, Cadouin and
Belves, south of Sarlat, and Eymet in the very south of the department.
Away from the most popular sites, life moves at a slower speed.
As for the town
the local hub for this western part of the
Dordogne, it is actually rather ordinary, like any other French town of
its size, with its suburban sprawl, its superstores, its parking
problems; it is nothing particularly extraordinary to write home about.
rest of the Dordogne valley area.
Upstream from the Dordogne
department, the hills get higher and the valley gets deeper. A
traveller moving upstream would reach, in succession, the following
departments, which are described in more detail below:
, and finally thePuy
de Dome, in the Massif du Sancy, which is where the Dordogne begins its journey to the sea.
department of the Lot (46) and
the Quercy area
passes through the northern tip of the Lot department; but this is a
department that has also become very popular with visitors from
Britain, Holland and other parts, and the Lot valley in particular has
acquired an attraction of its own. Like the Dordogne, this is limestone
country, and until recent years was actually more off the beaten track
than the Dordogne. The department boasts one of France's
major tourist attractions, the village of Rocamadour, perched up and
down a steep cliff face overlooking the valley of the Ouysse. Like the
Dordogne, the department has a number of spectacular underground caves,
including the Gouffre de Padirac.
In the north west of the
department, the land is higher, rising to 500 metres; but this is still
delightful and soft countryside. The capital of the Lot is the
beautiful small city of Cahors
famous for its mediaeval streets and its unique surviving 14th century
bridge, the Pont de Valentré.
was once capital of a region known as the Quercy
, which is
nowadays made up of virtually the whole of the Lot department, plus
part of the Lot et
department to the south west. The name Quercy derives from the Latin
word quercus, meaning an oak tree, and naturally this is a region rich
in oak forests - not the massive oaks of old England, but smaller oaks
of southern Europe. The Quercy is a limestone plateau, cut
through by numerous streams and rivers. In the southeast, it extends
into the popular Rouergue area and the Aveyron department. For further details and pictures, see Midi-Pyrenees region
Department of Corrèze
Before entering the Lot,
the river Dordogne flows through the department of Corrèze,
administratively part of the Limousin
region. We are now properly in the Massif Central mountains, and apart from the
western tip of the department, most of the Corrèze lies
altitudes of 600 and 800 metres. With higher hills, the climate is not
so dry and hot in summer as the areas to the south west, and
boasts a fine collection of very beautiful small towns and villages,
notably Collonges la Rouge - so named on acount of the red
sandstone from which it is built - Curemonte and Turenne.
Cutting through the south
west part of the department, the river Dordogne passes through some
beautiful small towns and villages, such as Beaulieu and Argentat; and
north of Argentat, the hills get higher and the valley deeper as the
traveller enters the higher reaches of this river, the Dordogne gorges.
From near its source in the Puy de Dôme, down as far as
Dordogne has cut a deep valley through the mountains. Up above, the
plateaux of the western Massif Central offer wide areas of upland farm
country, fields and forests; this is a very rural area, largely off the tourist trail, and an area which tends to remain
green all through the summer, even in the driest of years.
The Cantal (15) and the Auvergne
in the Corrèze department on the border with Cantal. The
upper Dordogne is in a deep valley, with a series of dams
For a distance of some 30 kms, the river Dordogne forms the border
between the Corrèze and the Cantal departments, and thus
Limousin and the Auvergne
The Cantal, capital Aurillac
is mountain country, with peaks culminating at over 1800 metres. The
Dordogne valley at this point is marked by a series of major dams, such
as the Barrage de l'Aigle, providing hydro-electricity to the French
grid for over 70 years . Behind the dams, in a steep wooded
valley, the long lakes offer plenty of opportunity for water
sports. The Cantal is reputed to be one of the coolest departments in
France, which is not suprising since most of the department lies at
over 800 metres; this is much appreciated by people who want to escape
the dry heat of midsummer. The high peaks of the Cantal, consisting of
a massive volcanic area, offer proper hill-walking country
as well as skiing in winter.
The source of the River Dordogne is in the
neighbouring department of the Puy
, at an altitude of almost 1800 metres, on the
slopes of the Puy de Sancy, the highest peak in central France.